The last time Isabelle Adjani appeared onstage was 16 years ago, when she abandoned a Paris production of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” because of bad notices. Now she is back as the Dame aux Camelias — not in Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of his own novel, but in a new version of the novel by French writer Rene de Ceccatty. Although her name guaranteed good advance sales, Adjani’s presence cannot salvage this production from artistic drowning.
The play commences with a laborious flashback. Marguerite is dead, and her lover Armand returns to grieve, a psychological process expressed by his crawling around on all fours, apparently dusting the stage with his hair and groaning. The play then limps along through a sequence of short scenes, punctuated by the frequent rising and falling of a curtain.
What little dynamism the text possesses is paralyzed by the chorus-type role attributed to three minor but ubiquitous friends of Armand and Marguerite. They provide commentary about what we might be seeing if the author had thought to show it.
The famous tale concerns a kept woman who rises above self-contempt to a great moral height, loving her young man so much and so well that she sacrifices her affection in his better interests. That, at least, is what Alexandre Dumas had in mind. Ceccatty and director Alfredo Arias, however, have turned Adjani into a sort of twentysomething trollop on the lookout for extra pocket money — which might be defensible were it a deliberate choice rather than a misreading.
There is no sense of moral danger, of temptation, of resistance, of ecstatic abandon — in a word, of dramatic tension. Instead there is merely a rapidly concluded sexual encounter which transmutes into an orgy of emotional overstatement.
Adjani, alas, seems to have forgotten she is not being filmed. Her art is so refined that the privilege of distinguishing variations in her facial expression is reserved for people in the first row. Vocally, she is mannered, alternating affected and unconvincing laughs with strident declarations of self-pity. She is also virtually inaudible much of the time.
To maker matters worse, Arias commits several cardinal sins of staging. He has Adjani sit with her back to the audience, for example, during her confrontation with Armand’s father. Presumably to show off Armand’s defined muscles, he has the latter breakfast with the Dame bare-chested and wipe his mouth on his forearm, behavioral details that tend to jar with what is supposed to be an ambiance of bourgeois repression. A seemingly eternal convulsion, Marguerite’s death is as powerful an argument as one could imagine for euthanasia.
What saves the evening? Nothing. Not the ersatz emotion exuding from the cello accompaniment, and certainly not the female ushers who, at the final curtain, obediently take up positions to shower Adjani with flowers.